19 March 2015
Respect me (or else) respect my religion
If John Gray wonders why atheists get so angry, stories like this one ought to remind him. In Myanmar this week -- the nation also known as Burma -- three guys who run a bar were sentenced to 30 months in jail for insulting religion. The insult took the form of a poster showing Buddha listening to headphones against a psychedelic background. News reports link the prosecution and conviction of these infidels to a surge of "Buddhist nationalism" in Myanmar, which has taken its most notorious form in the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority culture. On one hand, "Buddhist nationalism" invites a clarifying comparison with "Islamic radicalism." Does anyone think there's anything intrinsically Buddhist about this Buddhist nationalism? Do the Buddha's teachings really compel these clowns in Myanmar to demand reticence if not reverence from nonbelievers? I suspect not, strongly. To anyone with the slightest grasp of Buddhism, the idea is absurd. Yet how different is this from Islamic radicalism? I suppose we must concede that Islamic radicalism has been more violent over time (even when we add Sri Lanka to the Buddhist ledger), but to the extent that Buddhist nationalists are persecuting people in Myanmar the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative. In both cases, idiots make religion a pretext for bullying people. Maybe what's going on here can be expected where cultures don't have the sort of egotistical individualism we see in most parts of the relatively secularized Christian world. Individuals everywhere crave respect about equally, I suspect, but in some cultures people may be more inhibited about demanding that you "respect ME!" than people elsewhere. If so, maybe what you get instead are extreme demands for respect toward religion and other signifiers of identity. I've long suspected that something similar goes on wherever dictators are objectively oppressive but also authentically popular. When people demand respect for their Great Leader, they vicariously demand respect for themselves; they deserve respect because their country and their leader are strong. Obviously the more individualistic nations and cultures aren't immune from this tendency, since you can attribute the same vicarious motives to superpatriots everywhere, and you can blame it, if you wish, on the absence of a more fully developed individual personality even in places where individualism is practically the reigning ideology. A philosophical pessimist like John Gray might note that wherever individualism is less fully developed -- though Gray himself might condemn individualism as mere egotism for all I know -- religion itself isn't necessarily the reason. There needn't be an inversely proportional relationship between piety and individualism, and 20th century critics may well have been right to note that revolutions uprooted traditional religion only to replace it with cults of personality. But if you treat the worship of Great Leaders as a religious impulse we can still find fault with that impulse. It would be something less benign than the comforting illusion Gray assumes to be necessary to struggling people in a soulless world. It could even be something that mankind could aspire to suppress, if you agree that this sort of bullying piety is less likely where people have more reasonable and conscientious self-esteem. Maybe a world without religion isn't possible, but a world without "sacrilege" or "blasphemy" as excuses to oppress people should be very possible.